A Tale of Five Cities

During our time in Flanders (northern Belgium), we visited five historic cities. I was going to describe them in order of preference, but it proved impossible to rank them—each one has something interesting the others lack. So I’ll tell you about them in the order we visited.

That said, if we have one travel trip for people visiting Belgium, it’s “go to Ghent!”


We made a day trip to this town of 35,000 residents while house sitting in northeastern Belgium, because it was the closest place we could get to by train that sounded interesting in our guidebook. There we got a first taste of some of the things that old Flemish cities are famous for: big market squares surrounded by four- and five-story Renaissance buildings (or Renaissance-style buildings constructed more recently), grand city halls from the 1300s or 1400s topped with imposing or ornate bell towers, big Gothic churches, and peaceful and quiet begijnhof.

Begijnhof are walled villages within a town, occupied by widows and never-married women who formed self-contained communities dedicated to a life of charity and good works. Unlike nuns, beguines were not bound by vows of poverty, so becoming a beguine was a good way for a wealthy woman in the Middle Ages or Renaissance to keep her money if she wanted to live a life apart from men.

Another notable feature of Lier is the sheep motifs all over town: carved sheep on buildings, a modern sculpture of a shepherd and his flock, an outline of a sheep’s head on signs in the tourist office. The story goes that in the 1400s, the ruling Duke offered Lier the choice of becoming the site for a large regional cattle market or a university. The city fathers chose the market, and the Duke is said to have muttered “oh, those sheep heads” (dunces). The nickname stuck, and the city tourism board is having fun playing with the image. (The university went to Leuven, which I talk about below.)

“Experience Lier, fun for the head”

Lier also has a small art museum that’s interesting for the large number of works by Pieter Breughel, an artist from the 1500s known for his paintings of rollicking Flemish peasants (or of Biblical scenes set among rollicking Flemish peasants).

One of Breughel’s most unusual works is a large painting of daily life in a Flemish town, consisting of more than 50 interlocking scenes—each of which visually depicts a common proverb of the time. A few of those proverbs, such as “beating your head against a wall” and “casting pearls before swine,” still survive in English. The Lier museum has two nearly identical versions of the painting. It seems that the picture was so popular that Breughel’s son painted more than 20 copies of it as a way to make money.


This city of 250,000 people was our first base in western Belgium. We stayed at the nondescript but well-located Ibis Centrum Opera Hotel for the simple reason that it was one of the few hotels in Ghent with air conditioning during a hot week. Ghent—about which I knew almost nothing before I arrived—blew me away. I kept saying “this place is beautiful” and “I love this city!”

Ghent has plenty of things for tourists to enjoy: a castle, a cathedral, other grand churches, river fronts lined with beautiful old houses, good museums about history and art, cobbled streets, sidewalk cafes, restaurants that serve vegetables(!), shopping, chocolate, beer, and hot waffles. Even so, it has nowhere near the hordes of tourists that fill some other Belgian and Dutch towns.

The local history museum (known by its Flemish acronym STAM) is first rate, with tons of medieval and Renaissance artifacts from the religious, political, military, and commercial life of the city. Ghent also has the best chocolate maker we found in Belgium (and we sampled a lot!): Van Hoorebeke by the bell tower. You can’t go wrong with anything in the shop.


This old merchant city of 120,000 people may be the most visited place in Belgium. Its medieval center is quaint and well preserved, with canals and little bridges and ornate spires all over the place. But endless tour groups clog the narrow sidewalks, and canal cruise boats with bored-sounding narrators motor past every few minutes (dodging swans as they go). That’s why we were so glad to find a nice B&B (Guesthouse de Loft) in a quiet part of town within walking distance of the center.

As in Venice—another city full of canals—once you get off the main drag in Bruges, the crowds thin out, and you see that daily life is still being lived in this pretty, old place.

Bruges was a must-see for me because it’s the main setting of a series of historical novels that I love (the House of Niccolo books by Dorothy Dunnett, about the members of a merchant company in the 1460s). But I’m glad I saw Ghent first. That let me savor medieval churches and guild halls, stroll picturesque old streets, and learn about Flemish history and architecture at leisure without the crowds. Then in Bruges I could focus my visit on a few select spots, such as the quiet and contemplative begijnhof and various places mentioned in the Niccolo novels.

Bruges’s ruling family, wealthy merchants, and foreign bankers were great patrons of the arts. One of the highlights of the city for me was the art museum, which offers as good an overview of the glory days of Flemish painting as you’ll find anywhere. Bruges is also home to one of the few statues by Michelangelo ever to leave Italy: a lovely Madonna and child.


I picked Leuven (Louvain in French) because it’s also mentioned in the Niccolo novels and because it’s convenient to Brussels Airport, where we flew out of Belgium. Leuven, a city of 90,000 people, is famous for its university (the one Lier rejected), which was founded in 1425. It’s also famous for being the place where Stella Artois beer is made, but since we’re not beer drinkers, that fact was wasted on us.

Near the center of the city is the university’s gigantic library. The building became a cause celebre when it and its contents were burned by occupying German troops during World War I. Hundreds of U.S. schools, universities, foundations, and private donors raised money to rebuild the library after the war. They’re recognized with inscribed stones on the face of the building. Melissa was stopped in her tracks to see the name of her hometown, Cincinnati, carved next to the front door of a university building in Belgium.

While there, we saw an interesting exhibition about the destruction and phoenix-like rebirth of the library, including some haunting examples of half-burned books salvaged from the rubble and wrapped in ceremonial cases. The exhibition tied those events to the present by focusing on libraries that have recently been at risk, such as the ancient manuscript collections of Timbuktu, Mali, which were threatened—but ultimately saved—when Islamist rebels overran that city a few years ago.

In a region of gaudy Gothic city halls, Leuven may have the gaudiest one of all. It’s a riot of carving, windows, spires, dormers, and statues, with hardly a bare space in sight. When we rounded the corner next to it, we were surprised to see a giant outdoor carpet made entirely from the flowers of Belgian tuberose begonias, part of some horticultural display.

Sidewalk next to Leuven's city hall carpeted in flowers

The weekend we were in Leuven, the city was also gearing up for an annual festival. The square was full of familiar sights from home (carnival rides, carousels, arcade games) and some decidedly unfamiliar sights (food stands selling pita sandwiches filled with cooked snails).


On the spur of the moment, we made a day trip by train from Leuven to Brussels, the capital of Belgium. The impetus was a special tour, offered only on Saturday mornings, of the city’s Art Nouveau architecture from the 1890s through the 1910s. Brussels expanded rapidly during that period, with lots of new neighborhoods being built in the latest style, so the city has hundreds of surviving Art Nouveau buildings.

Art Nouveau aimed to move away from the highly decorated, historical revival styles of the mid-19th century toward something plainer and less angular. It emphasizes swirling curved lines, themes from nature (such as flowers and vines), and the use of modern materials (such as iron girders). Once we knew what to look for, we started seeing Art Nouveau touches on balconies, windows, and facades all over town.

Our bus tour was a great way to see a lot of Brussels, because that city of 1.1 million people is large and spread out. I was surprised by how hilly Brussels is; everywhere else we’d been in northern Belgium was pretty flat. The hills offer lots of great viewpoints where you can look down on the city (something you only get in other Flemish towns by climbing a bell tower).

Brussels also has lots of open space—big green parks with fountains or lakes—and grand avenues. Despite its old buildings, those features give Brussels a very different and more modern feel than the rest of the stops on our tour of Flemish cities.

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